Metro’s Service Guidelines, enacted in 2011 and updated in 2016, were intended to depoliticize the allocation of bus service, replacing Council and Executive micromanagement with a set of objective standards distributing Metro resources across the County against consistent metrics. Since last year, Metro and the County have been working on revisions to the guidelines that will increase the emphasis on social equity in those standards.
The proposed changes are complex, but the detail has not obscured from politicians how the revisions will advantage some areas over others, mostly shifting service in the general direction of South King County. While the expected revisions to the Guidelines raise target service levels nearly everywhere, that’s only meaningful with a less constrained budget. Absent more funding, changes in priorities are a nearly zero-sum game. There are substantive concerns about what is being traded off with the increased focus on equity.
How the current Service Guidelines work
Service is allocated according to a series of ‘priorities’. Crowding and reliability are priorities 1 and 2, respectively, and one sees typically minor adjustments to these priorities in every service change. Priority 3 increases service to meet target service levels, while Priority 4 increases service on the most highly productive routes, or reduces service where productivity is markedly poor.
The 2019 System Evaluation identified 35,000 hours of needed investments for crowding and reliability, and another 420,000 needed hours to meet target service levels (Priority 3). For context, Metro operated 4.2 million hours pre-COVID. Because the hours needed to meet target service levels are already so large, and projected to grow to 1.5 million hours with adoption of the new guidelines, Priority 3 targets have a large impact on where service is directed.
Mechanically, it works by scoring corridors on a 40-point scale to identify target service levels. Currently, 20 points are allocated for corridor productivity, with 10 each for geographic value and social equity indicators. There’s an additional layer of analysis for peak-hour service.
Let’s pause to define terms. Social equity, as currently implemented, ranks corridors by how boardings in the area compare against the systemwide average for boardings within census tracts with greater than average minority and low income populations. Geographic value identifies how well a corridor connects to activity centers, regional growth centers and manufacturing/industrial centers. Corridor productivity is a measure of the potential market for transit being served, with points for the number of jobs, households, students and park-and-rides adjacent to the corridor. This isn’t a measure of actual ridership because the goal is to understand underlying demand (A second step adjusts the output of the scores where existing ridership suggests more service).
Somewhat unintuitively, the investments are prioritized based on the scores for geographic value, productivity, and equity in that order. Geographic value is thus rather more important in the current process than a simple counting up of points might indicate.
The proposals before the Council redefine each of the three key metrics of productivity, equity and geographic value. In particular, there is a more expansive definition of equity needs. The scoring of needs under each metric is also changed, although that turns out to be less important. Most contentiously, the County Council will need to decide which of the productivity, equity, and geographic value metrics to rank first, second, and third. Because the available budget is unlikely to stretch the estimated needs soon, the highest priority metric will draw much of the available resources.
The current guidelines’ equity scoring on minority ridership is replaced with a composite score including race, income, disability, foreign-born, and limited English speaker. The equity score will replace boardings with population, at some risk of directing service to areas with high equity scores, but lesser effectiveness at serving target populations.
The productivity score is adjusted to give added consideration to low and medium income job locations, aligning productivity metrics more closely to equity considerations.
There are also new target service levels for weekend service. The updated Metro Connects plan, itself reconfigured to reduce equity gaps, will be incorporated into the Service Guidelines Priority 3 methodology setting new minimum target service levels on those corridors.
As the maps on this post make clear, the ordering of Priority 3 investments produce very different scenarios. (Each map shows the gap between current service and target service levels for a particular ordering).
The equity-first scenario addresses historical disparities in access, implementing Metro’s Mobility Framework and the recommendations of the Equity Cabinet. Investments prioritized in this scenario closely follow the ridership patterns seen since COVID-19 as the traditional commute has declined sharply.
The productivity-first scenario most closely follows existing demand and land use, and is should maximize ridership by making the greatest investments in the places with the greatest demand and most supportive development patterns. It generally is the most supportive of County climate goals by serving the greatest number of riders, although advocates for an equity-first approach point to localized climate impacts and air quality issues in South King County.
The geographic value-first scenario mostly closely maps to existing service, reflecting the high priority assigned to connecting centers in the current standards. It tends to map transit service to where cities are encouraging growth and more compact land use as represented by the regional centers framework and local activity centers.
Each scenario speaks to a rather different vision of Metro’s role with clear tradeoffs that can only be blunted by much higher funding levels so Metro can invest in routes further down the priority list. The expected 2024 ballot measure for countywide transit funding will be pitched as the solution to whatever needs the Council decides to rank lower in the service guidelines.